Exciting implications of the neuro-immune link no one is talking about

recent research paper from the University of Virginia may pound the final nail into the coffin of the long-standing medical dogma which rigidly labels diseases as “organic” or “psychiatric.”  UVA researchers have discovered a complex network of lymphatic vessels which service the brain, prompting a serious update of the concept of a highly selective “blood-brain barrier.”

When asked about methods to study the immune response of the brain and CNS, UVA Department of Neuroscience Professor Jonathan Kipinis explained, “Now we can approach this mechanistically – because the brain is like every other tissue connected to the peripheral immune system though meningeal lymphatic vessels.”

For a geek like me, this is very exciting news. A review of the paper on ScienceAlert explores the paper’s ramifications:

The discovery could not only prompt a rewrite of the textbooks, it might also lead to a new understanding of how our immune system influences our brain and our behavior. But the discovery made headlines again last week when the team showed that the immune system could actually be controlling our social behavior through these vessels.

The researchers and reviewers of this paper assert that the immune system exerts effects on the brain. Please allow me to daydream and make a leap with much larger possible implications – what if the reverse is also true?  How much more exciting is the notion that the brain influences the function of the immune system?

After nearly four decades on this Earth and a decade and a half in clinical medicine, I am absolutely certain that the brain influences the health of the body, and the body influences the health of the brain. Every health problem is an organic one. Every health problem is a psychiatric one.

What if the dopamine and endorphins released after a challenging exercise session are making you even healthier than we thought? What if the serotonin and dopamine released while you eat a meal lovingly prepared by a family member are exerting beneficial effects on your immune system?  Maybe Grandma’s homemade chicken soup actually does have healing powers!  What if the serotonin released when you perform an act of kindness makes you more likely to fight off infections?  What if the dopamine and oxytocin released during satisfying sex with someone you love helps your immune system recognize and destroy cancer cells? What if the oxytocin released during breastfeeding serves an evolutionary function to stimulate antibody production, in turn promoting mom’s and baby’s health?  What if these ‘happy hormones’ promote immune function?

Couldn’t this discovery (and my creative daydreaming) help explain why happy people are generally healthier, and why depression can bring physical illness? I know it is a ‘chicken or the egg’ debate. Maybe happy people are healthy because they are happy. Maybe healthy people are happy because they are healthy. Maybe it is some of both.

I fully understand that research in immunotherapy and immunomodulating pharmaceuticals stand to make lots of people lots of money.  I expect that, for this reason, most of the research community’s focus will be on the ways the immune system influences neurologic disease.  But I sure hope there are some researchers willing to explore the opposite, because it could truly revolutionize our understanding of the mind-body connection, and the role of the brain in illness and wellness.  What if the most incredible and powerful drugs in the world aren’t made in factories and labs, but in our own minds and bodies?

When Descartes dissected the brain and found the pineal gland in 1649, he claimed to have found “the seat of the soul.”  Subsequent and modern anatomists and scientists have dismissed his assertion as quaint but absurd.  Perhaps he wasn’t guilty of faulty science or reasoning after all.  Maybe the problem is modern science’s difficulty defining the soul itself. Maybe we are about to do just that.

Keith Pochick is an emergency physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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